The North American Wife Carrying Championship is a visually wacky event.

Every fall, strong and enthusiastic men head to Sunday River ski resort in Newry to race up hills and through water and mud with a woman, often their wife, slung over their shoulder. The women race upside down, with their feet in the air and their head in the proximity of the man’s rear end. When the man runs though water, the woman gets a mud facial.

So with a comedic mockumentary film about the event now streaming and airing on cable, the question to ask is why somebody didn’t make a funny movie about this Maine tradition sooner. The short answer, say the makers of “Couples of Wife Carrying,” is that they made it just as soon as they heard about it.

Kendall Chappell and Johanna Anttila in a scene from the mockumentary “Couples of Wife Carrying,” filmed at the North American Wife Carrying Championship at Sunday River. Photo courtesy of 270 Yards, LLC

The film was shot during the North American Wife Carrying Championship in 2017, melding the farcical stories of the film’s characters with the real action, contestants, fans and local people. It was released digitally in August and is scheduled to be screened at the Gem Theater in Bethel, near Sunday River, during the weekend of this year’s North American Wife Carrying Championship. This year’s event will take place at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 at Sunday River.

“We were racking our brains for a fun idea for our next film, and then we heard about this,” said Evan Bochetto, the film’s director and one of the producers. “Visually it’s a very unique experience, and we knew there’d be a comedic element.”

The film is currently available on cable, satellite and streaming services, including Comcast, Spectrum, Sling and Dish Network. It’s also available on iTunes and Amazon. It’s sort of a hybrid between mockumentaries like “This is Spinal Tap” or “Best in Show” and a real documentary. Bochetto and fellow producer Dan Pastewka had previous experience in making documentaries, including “Cassius Ali” (2015) about the childhood of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. None of the filmmakers are from Maine or had any previous Maine connections.

The film is shot in documentary style, with Bochetto in the film as the director of the documentary. He’s seen interviewing and shadowing the actors playing wife-carrying couples: Brad Kula and Kendall Chappell as Americans Mississippi Al and Trina Thorne and Miska Kajanus and Johanna Anttila as Finnish champs Jarkko and Hilkka Karjalainen.

Modern wife-carrying events began in Finland about 30 years ago, based on the 19th century legend of Ronkainen the Robber. To prove they were worthy of joining Ronkainen’s band, men had to run a course carrying a heavy sack on their back, or woman grabbed from a nearby village. Today Finland is the site of  World Wife Carrying Championship.

Actor Brad Kula, carrying Kendall Chappell, in a scene from the comedy film “Couples of Wife Carrying.” Photo courtesy of 270 Yards, LLC

The Sunday River event started in 1999 and is the sanctioning body for other wife-carrying events around the U.S., said Karolyn Castaldo, director of communications for Sunday River Resort. Couples who’ve won at Sunday River have gone on to compete in Finland, and Finnish couples have come to Maine to compete. So creating a rivalry between Americans and Finns in wife-carrying is not far-fetched.

Giana and Elliot Storey of Westbrook won the actual Sunday River event in 2016 and then came in fourth at the worlds in Finland. The Finnish course had an earlier and larger water feature to run through, which left Elliott Storey’s sneakers wet and heavy for the remainder of the race, he said. But it didn’t have the hills that Sunday River has.

The Storeys, who appear briefly in “Couples of Wife Carrying” as themselves, say they got into wife-carrying races – after their third of four children was born – because it looked like fun and they both seek new challenges. She’s a group fitness instructor, and he’s competed in strong man competitions.

They also say it’s a great couples bonding exercise. The wife has to trust the man won’t slam her head into the log post obstacles or the ground, or dunk her underwater. Giana Storey says she doesn’t even wear a helmet.

“I know he’ll never let me get bloody or concussed,” she said of her husband.

The film is filled with local people, many of whom are asked to talk about the wacky fictional couples who are the center of the story. These include town officials, business owners and folks off the street.

Miska Kajanus, as a competitor from Finland, in a scene from “Couples of Wife Carrying,” shot at the North American Wife Carrying Championship at Sunday River. Photo courtesy of 270 Yards, LLC

Shooting at the North American Wife Carrying Championship allowed the filmmakers to use the thousands of spectators in the crowd, Bochetto said, to add to the feeling of authenticity. The 80-minute movie was filmed in about seven days in the fall of 2017, for a budget of about $65,000. Scenes were filmed at dozens of specific locations, including at Sunday River and in and around the town of Bethel.

The actors were filmed racing against each other and against real competitors on Sunday River’s 278-yard course, which includes water, hills and log obstacles. The winner each year gets five times the wife’s weight in cash and her weight in beer.

The film shows what the wife-carrying event is like, plus what it could be like if a really odd and somewhat profane rivalry started between couples. The fictional couples are shown preening, swearing, fighting and getting involved in the kind of dramatic backstories you’d see on reality TV. The Americans are from the deep South and met when the husband saved his future wife from an alligator. The Finns met at a wife-carrying event in their village, and now as champs, they sometimes engage in romantic entanglements with other couples.

The documentary feel of the comedy is heightened by the fact that the Finns are played by actors born in Finland, who both speak Finnish. Some of their dialogue is actually in Finnish, with subtitles.

“It was important for us to find Finnish actors,” said Bochetto.

Kajanus, who plays the Finnish husband, has had roles in the TV shows “Modern Family” on ABC and “Veep” on HBO, while Anttila, who plays his wife, has been in the films “Loss of Grace” and “And the Dream that Mattered.” Kula, who plays Mississippi Al, has appeared on the CBS soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” while Chappell has appeared on the TruTv comedy sketch show “Rachel Dratch’s Late Night Snack.”

Evan Bochetto, Miska Kajanus and Johanna Anttila in a scene from “Couples of Wife Carrying.” Photo courtesy of 270 Yards, LLC

This film is not the first time the North American Wife Carrying Championship has attracted media attention. Network and cable news programs often do feature stories about it. When the Storeys won in 2016, they were interviewed on the syndicated morning TV show “Live” with host Kelly Ripa. They also served as wife-carrying consultants for the David Spade comedy film “Father of the Year.” Part of the story involves a wife-carrying race.

This year’s North American Wife Carrying Championship will be a little different than what is seen in the film, said Castaldo at Sunday River. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, spectators will be kept from standing inside the horseshoe-shaped course, which they were allowed to do in the past. The event is free for spectators, standing outside of the course. People are required to wear masks when six feet of distance can’t be maintained.

And instead of allowing couples to race two at a time, as seen in the film, only one couple will be on the course at a time. All couples are timed as they race and those times determine the winners, Castaldo said.

Bochetto and Pastewka plan to attend the wife-carrying championship this year and be at the Gem Theater screenings planned for 7 p.m. on Oct. 9 and 10 in Bethel, to answer questions from the audience about the film and their experience working in Maine.

Bochetto said the filmmakers were struck with how friendly and helpful Mainers were to them while making the film.

“We had beautiful fall foliage to shoot and and everyone was just so positive about what we were doing,” Bochetto said.

 


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